Autobiography Of An Elderly Women:
Shadow Of Age
My Mother's House
Conventions Of Age
Other People's Medicine
Compensations Of Age
Spending Of Time
Land Of Old Age
Grandmothers And Grandchildren
Young People And Old
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Spending Of Time
( Originally Published 1911 )
THERE are some older people to whom life has not handed out so many vacant spaces, and whose days yet remain crowded, not with the unavoidable duties, but with those that others impose upon them.
I know a valiant old lady of seventy whose vigorous and sane presence was of such inspiration to her many daughters that " mother " was on a perpetual round of visits of advice and consolation. As is the case with so dominant and self-reliant a nature, she had raised up a brood of fine women, but women accustomed to rely upon her, even into middle age. As happens often in such cases, she first domineered over them and they in turn ate up her time and her leisure until she rebelled against this tender slavery of her own creating.
One day she arose, saying, " Before another of these granddaughters of mine gets the croup, I'm going around the world !" — which, it seems, she had always desired to do, but had not had the time for. So, with much dexterity, she eluded the vigilance of her loving children, hopped upon a boat, and informed them by telegram where she was going.
"For," she told me by letter, " I have no intention of viewing the marvels of this earth with a rhinitis pill popped into my mouth by one of my daughters every few minutes. I don't want to go through the tombs of the Ptolemies with goloshes on my feet, as I know I should have to do if one of the girls went with me."
In one's travels around the earth one meets many elderly people who, like this friend of mine, are seeing at last the sights they had planned to see all their days; fulfilling the dreams, often times, of a far remote youth.
Again, it is some desire for knowledge that we indulge in in our old age.
Two old friends of mine — a retired minister and his wife — are at this moment pursuing the study of biology with all the ardor of youth. Through the years of his long life this dear man and his wife had looked forward to the time when they might slake their curiosity about the wonders of the earth, and now they are doing it with the passion of youth. It was a real need with them and a true desire which they had always between them kept alive. I do not know any reward that a life of toil can hold more precious than this fulfillment of a lifelong desire.
Another friend of mine had a very full life, though she never married.
She took care of her brother's house,— a complicated establishment full of guests; but always she cherished a love for the Romance languages and read much of their literature in translation; and when she had time, which was after her sixty-fifth birthday, she learned Spanish and French and Italian.
At this minute, down the street Mrs. Baker is making rugs and carpets out of all the rags she has saved for the last thirty years. The story of how she has conserved these pieces is an epic, a tribute to the force and persistence of the human will. Her children, one and all, have tried to make her throw away " all that rubbish." They have pointed out to her that her collection of old pieces was a mania, and that nothing would ever come of it; also, they might be doing " somebody some good."
During her absence her daughters would lead commiserating friends to the attic and show them rag-bags bursting, trunks overflowing, bureau drawers yawning, with the pieces their mother had collected. Oh, the younger and older generations had some doughty passages-at-arms over what the younger women called a " needless and unhygienic accumulation."
" Some day," Mrs. Baker persisted, " I intend to make rag carpets from them — when I have time."
She has time now, and, I am glad to say, is doing what she always wanted to. The making of rag carpets may not have been a high goal to aim at, but what matter ? The longer I live, the more I believe it is the spirit in which we do things that makes our acts pleasing or displeasing to a Greater Intelligence. Who knows whether rag carpets made with a cheerfulness which is in itself a prayer may not be more pleasing to the Lord than much more pretentious occupations performed sadly?
To many of us the moment of leisure comes too late; we allow the daily occupations of our business to crowd upon us so in middle life that, when old age comes upon us, it finds us without resource. So it is with men, while women fill up the depths of the spirit with a countless reiteration of detail, bankrupting themselves; leaving themselves dependent upon the good will of others for all amusement.
Many of us have worked so hard and life has treated us so ungently that all the fair lights that burned for us in the country of youth have been put out but, thank God! it isn't so with all.
That elusive moment, " when I have time," that every one talks about, comes to almost all of us, and it finds a certain number of us with a will to do what we like. But here with the things that we want to do, we often find ourselves in the position of children who plan out tasks that their little strength will not perform. For ever and ever we bruise ourselves against the limitations of the flesh. Oh, the books that we wish to read, for which our eyes do not serve ; the pleasurings denied us ; the work cut away from us because of the limitation of our strength, and the knowledge that this limitation must always increase.
The size of the earth over which one may roam shrinks day by day, until it decreases to the house, — to one's room, to one's bed and finally to the narrowest space of all.
So side by side with the things that we can now do because we have more time are the things that we have no strength for and the things that our children promise to do for us and never get around to, — our children who are so eager to perform all sorts of small kindnesses.
I know that I have been wanting for three years to straighten my attic the way I would like to see it done, and neither have I been permitted to do it, nor will my children do it for me. It is one of those things that has got to be done by one of the family , no cleaning-woman can do anything except the heavier part of the work.
And now, whenever I go up and sort over a trunk of letters or a chest of drawers, some one is sure to hear me walking around up there and come after me, until what - Margaret and Dudley call my " attic face " is a joke in the family. They pretend that there is a certain joyful but furtive look comes over me when I have " designs," as Dudley says, on the attic.
" That attic, I hope, will never get cleared," he tells me. " It is all the joy to you that a double life would be. It gives you the joy of forbidden fruit. As long as it is n't cleared, you can sneak up there and go on a terrible debauch; of course you are generally ill and miserable after it, but who minds that when they have made a night of it ?"
In this disrespectful way does my son joke me, not realizing that the state of the attic is a real source of annoyance to me.
Almost every older woman has something equivalent to my attic. Oftentimes this attic is a thing a woman is strong enough to do herself, but which her children, with their too loving care, prevent her doing. Sometimes little household duties that she has attended to all her life herself, from one day to another, her children have decided she isn't strong enough to do. Perhaps one time she got tired ; who doesn't ? Young people as well as old get tired. And sometimes I think that those old people are most to be envied, after all, who keep forever in the harness and to whom each day brings its compulsory duties ; in them lies the essence of youth, which, after all, I suppose, has a good deal to do with the feeling that one is helping to make the wheels of the world's work go round.
I think that many a woman has had her life shortened by this fretting that might have been avoided, much more than it would have been by the fatigue that doing what she wished to would incur. When day after day one asks those young people, upon whom one has become dependent for some service, to look after this or that, the chains of age weigh heavily. We have to ask in all the varying tones that the dependent must use, from the cajolery with which we get our own way to the futile bursts of irritation, and in the end perhaps resort to subconscious strategy, lucky at last if we can but accomplish our purpose. When I do this there is a feeling deep in my heart of how round-about, how circuitous, are my acts, how unlike the " I "that once brought about the small things in the world that I wished to; so short a time ago I could accomplish in my life, in the ordering of my household, what I wished.
The spaces in our lives that our children have helped to empty by making it difficult for us to do those things which they consider harmful for our well-being, they try to fill up with their kindly and blundering hands. Every older woman who lives much with her children knows what I mean.
Margaret and Dudley, I know, feel that I don't see enough of women of my own age. Mrs. Allen, at the other end of the town, and I have a very good time together whenever we meet, and yet it is quite a distance — for although it is a little town where we live, it is sprawled all along the Common — for us on our old legs to run in and out, and we have managed to live half a lifetime without ever becoming intimate, notwithstanding a very real enjoyment we have in each other's society.
This liking Dudley tries to further as though it was a hothouse plant.
" You look ' down,' mother; shan't I telephone to Mrs. Allen? Or let me run down in the motor and get her for you."
Or, " I'm just going over to Lembury; shan't I drop you at Mrs. Allen's for a half-hour ? " until Mrs. Allen has become to me the symbol of " amusing mother."
When I see them at it, it touches me in my heart and it touches me in my temper as well. I don't want to be amused; I don't want to have occupation found for me. If I have nothing better to do than to sit with my hands folded, then I prefer to sit; nor does conversation like this affect me in the slightest.
Margaret will say to Dudley:
" I think that Mrs. So-and-So has changed very much this last year. She has allowed herself to lose interest in things."
"Yes," Dudley will reply, " I think an older woman makes a great mistake not to cultivate her own hobbies."
" And beside that," Margaret will add, " keep abreast with the times. Now there is Mrs. Griscom," she went on in reproving tones, "I see her out motoring with her son almost every day."
Now here I knew what they were getting to; they wanted me to go out in Dudley's new motor. Now, if there's anything I dislike it is nasty, smelly, jouncing, child-grazing, dog-smashing, chicken-routing motors. I ride along with my heart in my mouth, — not for my own life and limbs, although those are uncomfortable enough being jounced along like a piece of corn in a popper, which seems to me no way for a woman to spend her few remaining years of life; but it is for the people along the wayside whom we almost crush, — the trembling horses, the squawking hens, the frightened children that rack my nerves.
I don't like motors any more than I like trolley cars, although I ride in the cars when I have to go from one town to another, but I don't enjoy them any more than I enjoy trains. If all my neighbors want to do it and enjoy it, let them, — I don't intend to ! But Margaret always had a mania for having me ride; before Dudley got the car, it was carriages, but now, under one pretext or another, they try to get me to go motoring with Dudley. They say that if I once get into the car I will get to like it, but I know that I shall not. I shall not get to like it any more than I shall ever have Mrs. Allen for my bosom friend.
These things can't be forced upon one; we will for ever and ever, young or old, choose our amusement from some hidden spring within ourselves, and if new doors are to be opened to us of enjoyment, it is our hands that must lift the latch, though we follow in the lead of some beloved person.